Published August 18, 2010
SALT LAKE CITY – After expanding just once in its first 10 years, the Mountain West Conference has added three schools in the past two months.
Fresno State and Nevada received and accepted invitations to join the league in a wild, wild Wednesday that left the Mountain West in a very comfortable position and the depleted Western Athletic Conference in serious need of members.
The Bulldogs and Wolf Pack are following Boise State out of the WAC and into the Mountain West, which lost Utah to the Pac-10 earlier in the summer — and it isn't over yet.
BYU is mulling going independent in football and reportedly joining the WAC in all other sports. The Cougars have not confirmed anything and may need another look before making anything official. At this rate, there might not be much of a WAC left to join.
If BYU stays, the MWC could have 11 members within the next two years with room to even out the lineup with one more school. If BYU goes, the league still has 10 members.
"I don't know BYU's intentions," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said Wednesday night in a conference call. "We're simply looking at getting better and we got better tonight with Fresno State and Nevada joining our league."
The WAC, meanwhile, once had 16 teams until eight of them departed and formed the Mountain West. The only addition since has been TCU in 2005. Without new membership, the WAC would have just six schools once Fresno State and Nevada make the move.
Thompson spoke after returning from a meeting in Philadelphia with Comcast and CBS officials, who said they wanted the league and its television network — The Mtn. — to reach more markets. The league started the network a few years ago, giving up national exposure on ESPN for more scheduling freedom.
"(Expansion) just made lot of sense at this particular juncture. We got better and we helped our TV position," he said.
The MWC also helped its bargaining position with BYU, although Thompson said the latest expansion wasn't a pre-emptive strike if the Cougars decide to leave the conference. Nor was it a way to prevent the Cougars from leaving, by giving them nowhere to go.
But by adding Nevada and Fresno State, the Mountain West is clearly in a stronger position with the Cougars. Thompson also said the additions will increase the conference's chances of earning an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series, something the MWC has been pushing for in recent years.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson was out of the office Wednesday and did not immediately return calls and e-mails seeking comment. The WAC announced Benson will hold a teleconference Thursday to address the losses.
The WAC could be down to six members, two short of the NCAA requirement for a conference.
The Mountain West lured Boise State in early June, but learned less than a week later that Utah was leaping west to a higher-profile spot in the Pac-10 along with Colorado.
So the Pac-10 becomes 12 and the Big 12, which also lost Nebraska to the Big Ten, settled at 10 members when Texas agreed to stay and keep the remaining parts of the league intact.
BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was left out of the various realignments and athletic director Tom Holmoe said last month that going independent was an option the Cougars would consider. BYU already has its own television network — BYU-TV — which would get the Cougars out of having to share the Mountain West's TV network with the league's other eight members.
"We have a national base. We can go all over the country and people can see that," Holmoe told reporters last month. "That is a very important thing to us right now — exposure."
The Salt Lake Tribune published Holmoe's comments on Wednesday after the rumors that the Cougars were going back to the WAC surfaced, then erupted when somebody apparently hacked Colorado State's athletics Twitter account and said an announcement was imminent.
The Tribune, citing an unidentified WAC source, said BYU's move was awaiting approval of church leaders. A church spokeswoman referred calls back to BYU, which released a brief statement late in the day after media relations workers were bombarded with calls and e-mail.
The statement did nothing to tone down speculation on whether conference realignment was really back again two months after it appeared settled for at least a little while.
"BYU has been reviewing, and will continue to explore, every option to advance its athletic program," the statement read. "At this point, BYU has no further comment."
Associated Press writers Josh Dubow in San Francisco and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.